The first time Kamal Al-Solaylee watched Carol Reed’s film Oliver! on TV, he had the sudden wish that he were white. Even as a boy in Cairo, Al-Solaylee had already absorbed what is an all-too-regular occurrence within communities of colour: the fetishization of whiteness and light-coloured skin.
But Al-Solaylee’s second book (following 2012’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, which was nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction and was a finalist on the 2015 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads) is not about self-loathing. It is instead an ambitious attempt to unite a variety of peoples, experiences, classes, and religions under one umbrella: skin colour. Mixing reportage from 10 countries and four continents, historical analysis, media accounts, and his own personal insights, Al-Solaylee has crafted a thoughtful look at a certain kind of marginalized experience, seen through the lens of his own history of migration.
Born into a Yemeni family, Al-Solaylee felt he had no choice but to identify himself by his skin colour, just as others see him as Arab and Muslim. He proposes brown as a continuum, running from clearly dark-skinned to those capable of passing for white. And he has a formula for stating who is in and who is not. Has the group with which you identify “reached a crisis point in the host country?” he asks. If the answer is yes, yup you are brown. To get to this point, he does set somewhat arbitrary limits – his definition does not include white, black, ethnic Chinese, or indigenous peoples. But his rubric allows him to connect Muslim shopkeepers in France, Filipina nannies in Hong Kong, and undocumented Hispanics in the U.S.
Al-Solaylee points out that colourism is different from racism, something that becomes apparent on his travels to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Qatar, where he traces the sources of modern-day transient labour and notes how poorly treated migrants are as a result of their class and skin colour. In Trinidad, he finds a country unable to overcome black and brown divisions.
The last third of the book looks at the West – specifically the U.K., France, the U.S., and Canada – where Muslims have been “fused into a single, questionable minority.” If Muslims in Britain have felt under siege because of the push for British values and the rise of the security state, France carries an “unmistakable sense of doom, of futility, and all-ready suspicion.” But it is the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. – and his specific targets of hate: Muslims and Mexicans – that allows Al-Solaylee to illustrate the ways in which brown identities can coalesce in the eyes of outsiders, which makes the book resonate even more.
In Canada, Al-Solaylee must confront his own placid existence as a middle-class, middle-aged gay man who has never directly experienced Islamophobia, and contrast this with the worrisome antics of the 2015 federal election, during which the niqab became a wedge issue. For Al-Solalylee, this subject was too close for comfort.
Despite a focus on the challenges of being brown in today’s world, the book ends on a positive note, celebrating Canada’s embrace of Syrian refugees. And yet, Al-Solaylee cannot always overcome the contradictions that lie at the heart of Brown. He continually expects to be welcomed on his travels by “my fellow brown people,” only to have his privilege as a Canadian writer remind him that he is an outsider. Perhaps, as he admits, the “transition into the collective is still in progress.”